Pandemic Life Comes into Focus in Exhibit – The Calexico Chronicle

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CALEXICO — In April 2020, Imperial Valley resident Sidney “Sid” Hester witnessed the first teachers’ parade. Snapping several photos as it made its way through Valley neighborhoods, he wanted to capture the moment when people tried to connect and reassure each other.

“What resonates with our community is the sheer isolation that we felt,” Hester said about his and others’ feelings during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Mexico that same year, El Centro resident Ruben Martel came across a girl playing an accordion in Mexico City during the height of the pandemic. The girl at the time told him she had to work, and despite her COVID fears, she wore no mask. It was a scene Martel knew he had to capture.

“I take pictures of moments that I see, something will catch my eye and I will take them,” he said.

On Thursday, Sept. 23, these and other thematically similar photos were on display inside the Steppling Art Gallery at San Diego State University-Imperial Valley in Calexico in an exhibit called “Documenting Life Through the Pandemic.”

Twenty photos were featured from three artists, including Martel, Hester, and Los Angeles-based artist Cynthia Novoa.

Ruben Martel stands next to a photo of his friend’s casket, a police officer who was one of the many victims of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. Martel was one of three artists who displayed their photographs inside San Diego State University-Imperial Valley’s Steppling Art Gallery in Calexico on Thursday, Sept. 22. The exhibit will run through Oct. 13 and is titled, “Documenting Life Through the Pandemic.” | KATHERINE RAMOS PHOTO

The exhibition was made possible by a grant called Project Impact through the California Art Council, said Jimmy Duron, vice president of the Calexico Arts Council, which organized the exhibition. The grant is meant to be used to depict the impact of COVID and in Duron’s words, almost memorialize the past two years of the pandemic in the United States and the rest of the world.

“During COVID, everyone had a cellphone, everyone became a professional photographer and was posting pictures on social media because that was our way of communicating,” he said.

Martel, Hester, and Novoa are not professional photographers but were able to capture the spirit of the grant in their displays at the gallery.

On one end of the gallery were photos in black and white, of a world that was dealing with the pandemic, the social justice battles of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the need to continue making a living in bad conditions. On the other, the photos were in color, celebrating the moments of life during the pandemic and the light that was cutting through the darkness of isolation.

Sidney “Sid” Hester stands next to the favorite of his three photos of the McCabe teachers car parade from April 2020. Hester was one of three artists who displayed their photographs inside San Diego State University-Imperial Valley’s Steppling Art Gallery in Calexico on Thursday, Sept. 22. The exhibit will run through Oct. 13 and is titled, “Documenting Life Through the Pandemic.” | KATHERINE RAMOS PHOTO

“They are really thought provoking,” SDSU Dean of Student Affairs Henry Villegas said. “Just reflecting on those very challenging times.”

“It’s what they are meant to do, a lot of conflicting emotions about lockdowns and everything, but a lot of different emotions,” said Americo Yacopi, with SDSU Student Affairs.

“I think they are all very beautiful. It shows so much that was happening,” said Vanessa Ruelas about Martel’s photos in particular. “It’s kind of sad to see all the people who are being affected and not getting their justice.”

Hester’s photos were taken at a time when he was seeing a light in the dark that was isolation. McCabe Union Elementary School District had announced the teachers would drive around the neighborhoods in a car parade for the students, to remind and reassure them that their teachers were still there and caring for them from afar. Hester was there to capture the moment in the early months of the pandemic.

To Hester, this showed more than enough of the human spirit to endure and connect when things go bad.

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“I wanted to show the change when it happened,” said Hester about his photos. “It shows that even in the worst of times we can come together. I wanted my photos to show that we were in it together, working together, and loving one another even though we couldn’t meet.”

Two gallery visitors take a look at Cynthia Novoa’s photo of a 100-year-old family matriarch still plying her craft during the pandemic in the Mexican state of Oaxaca during the opening of the photo exhibit, “Documenting Life Through the Pandemic,” on Thursday, Sept. 22, inside San Diego State University-Imperial Valley’s Steppling Art Gallery in Calexico. | KATHERINE RAMOS PHOTO
A photo of a girl on an accordion playing on the street for money in the middle of the pandemic is captured in Mexico City by El Centro’s Ruben Martel. | KATHERINE RAMOS PHOTO

In contrast to the more colorful photographs from Hester and Novoa, Martel’s photographs were in black and white showing a world that was struggling to get through the early parts of the pandemic.

One photo that has particularly impactful to him is the picture of a good friend’s casket during his funeral. The friend, a police officer, died due to COVID and reinforced how important it was to take the pandemic seriously for Martel at the time, which is where his photos were focused.

“Some of life went on, because you can see people out in public doing things. You can see the doctors in the masks, sanitizing people before they come in, you can see my friend getting a vaccine,” said Martel about his photos. “So yeah, I think it shows a bit of everything.”

Novoa, whose roots are in Calexico and Mexicali, was not present at the Sept. 22 opening. Still, her presence was felt through her four photographs. Her work turned the lens on more international life during the pandemic, with all of her photos focused on people and life in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, in Pueblos Magicos. One was of the Oaxaca de Juarez, another of Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca during the height of the pandemic in 2020, and two of indigenous women still working their trade and craft.

“For many of us, we are still going to be feeling the impacts of the pandemic for a while. Our generation is going to remember how our lives were upended and transformed, but people still have to work,” said SDSU-IV Dean Dr. Guillermina Gina Núñez-Mchiri of the exhibition. “But we still have to find joy in the world. I’m glad that we are now moving through this pandemic, but this is a reminder that some did not get through.”

The exhibit will run until Oct. 13. The Steppling Art Gallery is open on Thursdays to the public from 4 to 6 p.m. and by appointment.

Sid Hester’s photos were in color and tried to evoke a feeling of hope during the early months of the pandemic in 2020. Hester was one of three artists who displayed their photographs inside San Diego State University-Imperial Valley’s Steppling Art Gallery in Calexico on Thursday, Sept. 22. The exhibit will run through Oct. 13 and is titled, “Documenting Life Through the Pandemic.” | KATHERINE RAMOS PHOTO


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